Jordan Valley, small rural schools get yellow light to reopen with students in class

In-person classes were scheduled to resume in the Jordan Valley School District starting Monday, Aug. 24. (Rachel Parsons/The Enterprise)

JORDAN VALLEY – Rusty Bengoa, superintendent for the Jordan Valley School District, was on a Zoom call with other superintendents across the state when he learned that his students could return to in-person classes this fall.

“It was a huge sigh of relief,” said Bengoa. “My gosh, it’s just been so chaotic, so many changes and it makes it really difficult to plan and to give anybody any kind of structure.”

The state Education Department issued updated guidance Aug. 11, allowing small school districts with an enrollment of 75 or fewer to reopen in person if the Malheur County Health Department finds they are a safe distance from any Covid outbreaks.

The exception applies even if the county doesn’t meet the requirement for larger schools to reopen – 30 or fewer cases, with less than half of cases or five or fewer cases reported in the last week of the three-week period.

Jordan Valley, Juntura and Arock are the only school districts in the county eligible to operate under that exception, said Mark Redmond, Malheur Education Service District superintendent.

Enrollment last year was 65 students at Jordan Valley, 3 at Juntura and 17 at Arock.

Classes at the Jordan Valley School District will start Monday, Aug. 24, said Bengoa, and staff are now working in the building in preparation.

He said that Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education, “was really pushing for some kind of metric for the remote small schools” and “working tirelessly to be able to split things up.”

“I felt very positive, but you just don’t know,” said Bengoa. “We were hoping, and I know my entire community was hoping to be back in the building.”

Considering the differences between school districts in size, location and other factors, Bengoa said he doesn’t think a one-size-fits-all approach to opening schools would be effective.

“It just doesn’t seem logical. I think that’s what we get away from sometimes,” he said. “I’m just happy that we’re gonna be back in building because I just truly believe that’s what’s best for kids, and I was just afraid it wasn’t gonna happen.”

“But this is huge for us,” he said. “It just makes it nice and hopefully it doesn’t change, it makes it difficult even with parents and everybody because people don’t know what’s going on and when you try to give an answer and it changes within a couple of days, it’s just difficult.”

The Jordan Valley School District will follow state guidelines for social distancing, masks, hand-washing and other safety protocol, said Bengoa. “We’re so small that it’s gonna be fairly easy here. I don’t have any classes with more than 10 kids in a classroom.”

He said he is finalizing the district’s schedule, which “should be pretty close” to the same classes it was offering before the pandemic, but staff will need to be prepared to offer distance learning for students who test positive so that “they don’t lose any instruction or learning time.”

All teachers will be returning “as far as I know,” he said, and the school district will continue to have one bus transporting children.

Reflecting on students’ academic progress during distance learning last spring, Bengoa said, “There were kids who struggled with it more than being in person, and being back in building is gonna be a huge benefit for them, but overall, most of the students, huge-percentage-wise, did just fine.”

Bengoa is not certain whether enrollment will change this year. He said three students are no longer enrolled at the school district, but he has heard it will gain some additional ones who may be moving into the community. Enrollment at the district typically fluctuates up and down about five students.

“It’s not a lot, but when you only have around 50 kids, that’s a tenth of your population,” he said.

The Oregon School Activities Association recently delayed sports to start in 2021. The following activities have varying qualifying dates in 2021 but can start practicing Aug. 31: cheerleading dance and drill, speech, solo music, choir, band and orchestra.

Previous guidance stated that rural schools couldn’t hold classes in person if there were more than 30 cases per 100,000 residents in the county.

There have been no confirmed Covid cases in Jordan Valley’s 9710 ZIP code, according to Oregon Health Authority data.


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News tip? Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian by email at [email protected] or call 503-929-3053.


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